Horror

Ranking The Needle Drops in ‘Black Christmas’ (2006)


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Black Christmas

I watched Glen Morgan’s 2006 Black Christmas adaptation at the tender age of 11. Prior to that, my only exposure to the original was a segment on Bravo’s 100 Scariest Movie Moments. This four-hour docuseries has proven to be something of a Rosetta Stone for horror heads of my generation. Despite being heavyon spoilers, I used the list as a guide to working my way through some of the greatest genre films ever made.

The original Black Christmas is introduced by its chilling trailer. The shot of Lynn Griffith sitting dead in a rocking chair with a bag over her head and the narrator’s reading of the tagline “if this picture doesn’t make your skin crawl…it’s on TOO TIGHT” was enough to cement the film as essential viewing. That is, until I hit a wall trying to find a legit copy to rent or own.

In the mid-aughts, many peoples’ only impression of this property was the 2006 remake. Based on its critical reception, the film might as well have been sacrilege. But to be fair, Bob Clarke (A Christmas Story) himself served as executive producer and appears to be supportive in behind-the-scenes footage of the production.

In Black Christmas (2006), a group of women in the sorority house Delta Alpha Kappa fall prey to Billy Lenz (Robert Mann), an escaped spree killer who got revenge on his abusive mother and her husband 15 years prior. There are wacky twists and turns throughout the film, some of which implicate shady-looking but still conventionally attractive actors in the murders, before finally settling on a jaundiced Billy and his aggressively masculinized younger sister Agnes (Dean Friss) as the perpetrators. 

Also Read: ‘Black Christmas’ (2019): The MKE Sisters of Fight Back

Compared to the original Black Christmas, the remake retains none of the suspense or bleak atmosphere. But it does forge its own grotesque identity and, ironically, beats the Halloween remake to the punch on the psychological abuse origins of its killer. Black Christmas (2006) checked every box that my developing brain decided was standard for good horror back in the day; meaning, it was bloody and gross. Can’t lie and say too much has changed in the years since.

On a recent viewing, there was a lot that felt nostalgic: stabbings, eye gouging, black plastic bags, and human back bacon. What won me over, however, was the music. This film boasts a compilation of the best recordings of classic Christmas songs, period. And the soundtrack is also notable for containing the last feature-length score by the late maestro, Shirley Walker. Walker, along with music supervisor Dave Jordan, is the heart and soul of what might otherwise have been a flavorless story about hulked-up twins wreaking havoc on Jesus’s birthday.

Join us in ranking all of the film’s needle drops:

11. “(Everybody’s Waitin’ for) The Man with the Bag”

I have a confession. Although I’ve held down service jobs for the majority of my time in the workforce, nothing makes me happier than Christmas music during the holiday season. Christmas music rocks and, furthermore, it bangs. And nothing bangs harder than a big band doing it up with heavy brass instrumentation like their lives depended on it. Newer Christmas songs are low-energy BS about missing someone or something on the day. Kay Starr’s 1950 rendition of “(Everybody’s Waitin’ for) The Man with the Bag” has the kind of jump-the-fuck-up groove that kept me going through 12-hour shifts at various grocery stores, restaurants, and coffee shops. It’s my favorite track on here.

The song introduces Black Christmas (2006) to its viewership. I love cold opens and, lecherous shit-heel producers aside, horror films made under the Dimension banner had some of the best. Seeing that logo settle down in all its glory before cutting right to the action is a satisfying feeling that stems back to the original Scream series. The original film’s opening is scary from the get-go. Cameraman Bert Dunk deserves praise for capturing POV shots with a rig that predates the Steadicam! This sequence builds suspense for a killer whose tragedy is woven into the script until the very end. Morgan takes a more abrupt, yet memorable, approach.

In the remake, “Man With The Bag” plays over establishing shots of Delta Alpha Kappa and its immaculately decorated facade. We then move into Clair’s (Leela Savasta) room. The track is muffled as we see her draft a letter to her sister. There is a conspicuous fountain pen dipped in red ink that disappears without warning. Agnes is visible under Clair’s bed, which spoils the reveal somewhat but is frightening nonetheless. The chorus of the song is still audible from the living room downstairs. Then, while everyone else is waiting for the man with the bag, Clair finds herself with one wrapped over her face. To cap things off, Agnes jabs the sharp end of the pen through her face and the scratchy title is revealed immediately thereafter.

10. “Silent Night”

Credited with an arrangement by Henry Stuck, Franz Xaver Gruber’s composition is somewhat bound to the Black Christmas brand. It plays over the trailer of the original film and briefly during its opening scene. In the remake, the track echoes through the asylum where Billy is committed. Its inclusion is more than appropriate. Personally, this song has an inherent spookiness to it. I know all is supposed to be “calm” and “bright”, but this particular interpretation spells nothing but doom. Something about a chorus of disembodied voices insisting that everything is fine when it clearly isn’t, troubles me as a viewer. 

The set design of the asylum is so grimy it’s almost hazardous. But we love watching movies where there’s a high chance of contracting visual tetanus. The real cherry on top is the clammy orderly running Christmas food to inmates. He embodies the entire vibe. His face sells the ethos of the film: no matter scummy everything gets, there is room for festivities. 

9. “Jingle Bells”

The melody of this track is used to bridge a conversation between Kyle (Oliver Hudson) and Kelli (Katie Cassidy) to a scene where house mother Ms. Mac (Andrea Martin) establishes the time-honored tradition of leaving a gift for Billy under the tree. At first, it appears as a ringtone before we hear the lovely Frank Sinatra version in the sorority house. I adore the interplay between each sorority member here. The tipsy ambiance creates one of the only moments where we get to just hang out with the characters. But it isn’t long before the killer’s backstory is revealed, alongside sinister hints of the inevitable discovery of Clair’s body.

Billy’s crimes aren’t as colorfullyrealized here yet. But Martin’s performance is fitting for a campfire murder story. Of course, there is always one person in a slasher who looks askance at the storyteller and is too cool to let themselves believe the hype. In this case, that character is Dana (Lacey Chabert). Her presence is a total draw, right down to the baggy PJs and confrontational attitude, especially in her diatribe about Christmas iconography blatantly ripping off neo-Pagan rituals. 

This scene interrupts the greasy asylum scene and is actually more pivotal to building mystique around Billy than showing him eating chicken with his fingers. For some reason, the clammy orderly’s line “tastes like chicken…because it’s chicken” is ingrained in my memory. But closing out the scene with Dana looking away saying “I wish I could bury the ax with my sister…right in her head” before it cuts to the asylum again is where the real money’s at.

8. “Deck the Halls”

This track plays as the resident asylum Santa (Michael Adamthwaite) gets hit on by a nurse. This scenario is weird for pretty much every reason imaginable. I don’t know what about being in a poorly lit prison on Christmas makes people horny but there’s hardly a bit of footage in this film where people aren’t behaving like total freaks. This is exemplified by the Santa-themed pickup lines.

Choice lines like “ever seen the backseat of a sleigh?” make for thoroughly cringey viewing even before the thing truly gets going. Billy quickly dispatches the poor sucker and dons his gay apparel only to get hit on by the same nurse out the door! Safe to say though, non-family members aren’t really his type.

(I could not find the credited version of this song but please enjoy this one by OG Christmas voice, and singer extraordinaire, Nat King Cole!)

7. “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy”

You may ask yourself how a piece of music this beautiful and evocative of tiny, delicate things could sneak its way into the monstrosity that is Black Christmas (2006). The answer is that all good things require balance. Especially in horror. When Tchaikovsky found inspiration for this composition in the angelic celesta, a keyboard instrument that uses small pipes to produce sound, he might not have expected to hear it in such a horrific context. We are a far cry from Disney’s Fantasia and the family-friendly ballets that are still performed in the piece’s honor. But this tinge of whimsy is actually emblematic of the film’s tone, which Walker herself enshrines in the score.

This track is seeded throughout the film as a ringtone and chimes from a music box Billy uses as bait. I see it as an unofficial theme, parts of which are incorporated by Walker. Whether from her or Tchaikovsky, a devious-sounding plucked string section lurks in the background of quiet and murderous moments alike. This film farts in the general direction of anything resembling subtlety, but it knows exactly what kind of buttons to press with its kooky antics. 

6. “Arabian Dance”

While not the first piece from The Nutcracker to play in the film, this sequence is our first true glimpse into the fucked up family dynamics at play in the Lenz household. The film flashes back to 1970. Here we learn about the liver disease that gives the yellow bastard his color. It also features a revealing line about Billy’s mom: “When she looked at her son, all she saw was her husband.” Karin Konoval is one of the best performers in the entire thing. Walking the line between late-period Bette Davis and grindhouse haggery, Konoval completely sells her disdain for Billy and all the nastiness it implies. The way she crushes an ornament and sprinkles it in the baby’s crib is the kind of visual that would normally provoke laughter in a John Waters film. Instead, it is immediately unsettling and mean-spirited, like a John Waters film.

Walker interpolates the melody into her own score in “Flashback/Billy’s Present” and gives Black Christmas a level of thematic continuity that has been overlooked in the hearse since its release. The relationship between her music and the needle drops is reciprocal, and this is not the last we hear of it. I would compare her artistic prowess and understanding of how to make the best of a scary scene to what Harry Manfredini does in his early Friday the 13th scores. Her brilliance is sorely missed in today’s horror music.

5. “Waltz of the Flowers”

Set in a flashback to 1975, this typically romantic waltz swells into a close-up of Mother as she tells Billy: “Santa Claus is dead”. Walker’s score creeps in as the child glares at her without missing a beat. This scene is crucial for how much information it conveys through body language and sound design. Wiping none of the muck off this film’s aesthetic, this scene is artfully conceived. Morgan’s Black Christmas does not utilize that eerie POV fans of the original have come to know and love (save for a couple of shots here and there). But it does effectively place us in Billy’s shoes as he receives details about his parents through holes in the wall, all the while crouching like every kid does when shit goes sideways at home. 

Hiding with Billy, we learn about his father’s service in Vietnam and the fact that she’s been cheating on him. In the making-of documentary, Morgan admits to cribbing details from the early life of real-world killer Edmund Kemper to characterize his psychological profile. Some of which manifest with near 1:1 accuracy later in the film. While this extended origin story diminishes the potential terror of Billy’s anonymity, watching his real dad get murdered by Mother and her boyfriend more than makes up for it in its viciousness.

4. “Carol of the Bells”

“Carol of the Bells” plays in a flashback to 1982 over shots that reinforce Dana’s rant against misappropriated pagan symbols. By now, there has been a significant effort to undermine the innocence of Christmas in America. That would be totally punk rock were it not for the thing that happens next. Continuing with the strangeness of the Lenz family, the song carries over to a bird’s eye view of Billy’s mom having sex with her new husband. He falls asleep midway. Billy, meanwhile, is in a rocking chair in the attic where he has been banished, much like Kemper and his basement. The boy is 12. And reader, if you haven’t seen this film before, be prepared to dig into your owneye sockets to relieve yourself of the curse of sight.

It’s a brief scene that shows what could very generously be called “restraint”. We see a nightgown hit the floor. Then it cuts to baby Agnes with a title display that reads “9 months later”. Film is a medium that unlocks the power of inference in its audience. Take your own liberties with what this series of images is supposed to mean.

Having not seen the film in well over a decade, I was most excited to delve into whatever the heck was going on with Eve (Kathleen Kole) after the film blatantly suggests that she is Agnes. It turns out Eve is just super weird on her own though. They find her decapitated corpse later on in the film, adding to a list of misdirections that are totally unnecessary. And, I mean, you already pulled the trigger on an incest baby long before the hour mark! Dramatic reveals don’t get much wilder than that.

3. “Final Waltz and Apotheosis”

This track is part of one of the best-edited musical moments in the entire film. It plays when 8-year-old Agnes (Christina Crivici) stares into the tree and sees Billy on the other side. The shot is long and disorientating. It’s perhaps the creepiest of the many homages to the iconic close-up of Billy’s eye in the original. 

When mother lights a cig on the stovetop and gets a call from Billy, she goes cold. Her concern for Agnes is immediate, turning back to the living room but not before stepping on a Googly eye in an unsettling bit of foreshadowing. Billy wastes no time gouging out the right eye of Agnes, Then, he impales his stepfather through the back of his head. 

2. “Waltz of the Snowflakes”

This track appears in a key moment and its introduction is one of the coolest of the entire film. As Billy’s stepfather falls backward, we see the scene from above as he knocks the record player slightly and it skips from “Apotheosis” to “Waltz of the Snowflakes”. The overhead shots in this film serve as a transition from the tone of one scene to the next. They’re reminiscent of similar visuals in Psycho the way they tease out the threat of murder and place the audience in a position where they’re playing god but have no actual control of the outcome. This is especially grueling in a scene where an 8-year-old has her eye gouged out and witnesses her brother take several cookie cutters to their mother’s back. 

The record skipping in a scuffle is an obvious move, but it still effectively showcases the motivation behind the music in the film. Its finesse of the needle drop is undeniable. Of course, we have to throw it back to Shirley Walker, whose score contorts “Deck the Halls” into another theme for Billy and his mayhem. As he drags his mother into the kitchen Walker’s music kicks in with a twisted kind of glee. Black Christmas (2006) may not be the stripped-down thriller that the original was, but it has terrifying moments. This is certainly one of them. 

1. “We Wish You A Very Christmas”

About an hour into the film, the sorority discovers that they’re being picked off by Billy. So, they scramble to plan an escape amidst a coming snowstorm. We’re introduced to the estranged sister of our first victim, Leigh (Kristen Cloke), and she immediately takes charge to insist they find the girls presumed missing. In the chaos of this moment, Ms. Mac tries to cut out of there in her car. Heather (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) makes a plea to take her along and is promptly murdered. Ms. Mac manages to avoid Billy’s wrath but slips and gets impaled by a falling icicle. It is a silly death but, like many unfortunate incidents in this film, the gag is ominously foretold.

“We Wish You A Merry Christmas” plays from the car stereo during this madness and, here, two things jumped out at me. First, the Final Destination pedigree is undeniable. Second, this would play like gangbusters with a decent 3D conversion. The song and Walker’s score intertwine as Leigh and Melissa (Michelle Trachtenberg) find blood on the floor where Ms. Mac has died. And in the same scene, Michelle Trachtenberg is scalped by an ice skate. Cold world. Not very merry.

No other rewatch this year has given me more emotional whiplash. Yet I still have a soft spot for this much-maligned entry of early aughts horror. This is a toasty yuletide log burning with love for trash cinema, folks. Revel in the gnarly counter-programming if that’s your bag. But maybe don’t watch it with your mom.

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